Today is the 96th birthday of the Gay Rights Activist Frank Kameny. He dedicated two-thirds of his life to activism. Everyone today enjoys the privileges and societal understanding that he fought for, piece by piece, year in and year out. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Franklin Edward Kameny
DATE OF BIRTH: May 21, 1925
PLACE OF BIRTH: New York City, New York, US
DATE OF DEATH: October 11, 2011 (aged 86)
PLACE OF DEATH: Washington, D.C., US
National LGBTQ Wall of Honor at the Stonewall National Monument Inductee (2019)
International Astronomical Union and the Minor Planet Center Named Minor Planet 40463 Frankkameny After Him (2012)
Kameny’s House Listed on the National Register of Historic Places (2011)
Special Invitee to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 White House Bill-Signing Ceremony (2010)
Frank Kameny Way Dedicated in Washington D.C. (2010)
Obama Administration Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry Presented Kameny with the Theodore Roosevelt Award (2009)
Obama Administration Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry Issues Formal Apology to Kameny on Behalf of U.S. Government (2009)
Google Doodle Commemorating Pride Month (2021)
BEST KNOWN FOR: Franklin Edward Kameny was an American gay rights activist. He has been referred to as “one of the most significant figures” in the American gay rights movement.
Kameny was born to Ashkenazi Jewish parents in New York City. He attended Richmond Hill High School and graduated in 1941. In 1941, at age 16, Kameny went to Queens College, City University of New York to learn physics and at age 17 he told his parents that he was an atheist. He was drafted into the United States Army before completion. He served in the Army throughout World War II in Europe, and later served 20 years on the Selective Service board. After leaving the Army, he returned to Queens College and graduated with a baccalaureate in physics in 1948. Kameny then enrolled at Harvard University; while a teaching fellow at Harvard, he refused to sign a loyalty oath without attaching qualifiers, and exhibited a skepticism against accepted orthodoxies. He graduated with both a master’s degree (1949) and doctorate (1956) in astronomy. His doctoral thesis was titled A Photoelectric Study of Some RV Tauri and Yellow Semiregular Variables and was written under the supervision of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin.
While on a cross-country return trip from Tucson, where he had just completed his research for his PhD thesis, he was arrested by plainclothes police officers at a San Francisco bus terminal after a stranger had approached and groped him. He was promised that his criminal record would be expunged after serving three years’ probation, relieving him from worrying about his employment prospects and any attempt at fighting the charges.
Relocating to Washington, D.C., Kameny taught for a year in the Astronomy Department of Georgetown University and was hired in July 1957 by the United States Army Map Service. When they learned of his San Francisco arrest, Kameny’s superiors questioned him, but he refused to provide information regarding his sexual orientation. Kameny was fired by the commission soon afterward. In January 1958, he was barred from future employment by the federal government. As author Douglass Shand-Tucci later wrote,
Kameny was the most conventional of men, focused utterly on his work, at Harvard and at Georgetown… He was thus all the more rudely shocked when the same fate befell him as we’ve seen befall Prescott Townsend, class of 1918, decades before… He was arrested. Later he would be fired. And, like Townsend, Kameny was radicalized.
Kameny appealed against his firing through the judicial system, losing twice before seeking review from the United States Supreme Court, which turned down his petition for certiorari. After devoting himself to activism, Kameny never held a paid job again and was supported by friends and family for the rest of his life. Despite his outspoken activism, he rarely discussed his personal life and never had any long-term relationships with other men, stating merely that he had no time for them. He stated, “If I disagree with someone, I give them a chance to convince me they are right. And if they fail, then I am right and they are wrong and I will just have to fight them until they change.”
Kameny eschewed conventional racial designations; throughout his life, he consistently cited his race as “human”.
In 1961, Kameny and Jack Nichols, fellow co-founder of the Washington, D.C., branch of the Mattachine Society, launched some of the earliest public protests by gays and lesbians with a picket line at the White House on April 17, 1965. In coalition with New York’s Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, the picketing expanded to target the United Nations, the Pentagon, the United States Civil Service Commission, and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall for what became known as the Annual Reminder for gay rights. Kameny also wrote to President Kennedy asking him to change the rules on homosexuals being purged from the government.
In 1963, Kameny and Mattachine launched a campaign to overturn D.C. sodomy laws; he personally drafted a bill that finally passed in 1993. He also worked to remove the classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
In 1964, Kameny argued that homosexuals faced more severe discrimination than blacks because the federal government did not help them and actively discriminated against them. He said that homosexuals would fare worse from the success of the civil rights movement: “Now that it is becoming unfashionable to discriminate against Negroes, discrimination against homosexuals will be on the increase… Homosexuality represents the last major area where prejudice and discrimination are prevalent in this country.” Unlike other homosexual activists at the time, Kameny rejected the idea that homosexuality was inferior to heterosexuality:
I do not see the NAACP and CORE worrying about which chromosome and gene produced a black skin, or about the possibility of bleaching the Negro. I do not see any great interest on the part of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League on the possibility of solving problems of anti-semitism by converting Jews to Christians . . . We are interested in obtaining rights for our respective minorities AS Negroes, AS Jews, and AS HOMOSEXUALS. Why we are Negroes, Jews, or Homosexuals is totally irrelevant, and whether we can be changed to Whites, Christians, or heterosexuals is equally irrelevant.
Kameny further argued that homosexuality can be a social good: “I take the stand that not only is homosexuality, whether by inclination or overt act, not immoral, but that homosexual acts engaged in by consenting adults are moral, in a positive and real sense, and are right, good and desirable, both for the individual participants and for the society in which they live.” Eventually, he coined the slogan “Gay is Good” after listening to Stokely Carmichael chant “black is beautiful” in 1968.
In 1971, Kameny became the first openly gay candidate for the United States Congress when he ran in the District of Columbia’s first election for a non-voting Congressional delegate. Following his defeat by Democrat Walter E. Fauntroy, Kameny and his campaign organization created the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Washington, D.C., an organization which continues to lobby government and press the case for equal rights.
In 1972, Kameny and Barbara Gittings convinced the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to hold a debate, “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to the Homosexual?; A Dialogue” at their annual meeting in Dallas. It was for this debate that Dr. John E. Fryer, a gay psychiatrist in disguise as “Dr. Henry Anonymous”, testified as to how homosexuality being listed as a mental disease in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) affected the lives of gay psychiatrists and other homosexuals. Kameny had approached numerous gay psychiatrists, but Fryer was the only one who agreed to testify, and even he would only do so in disguise for fear of losing his position at Temple University, where he did not have tenure. The following year, the APA removed homosexuality from the DSM. Kameny described that day – December 15, 1973 – as the day “we were cured en masse by the psychiatrists.”
Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the US Military author Randy Shilts documented Kameny’s work in advising several service members in their attempts to receive honorable discharges after being discovered to be gay. For 18-year-old Marine Jeffrey Dunbar:
Kameny lined up gay ex-Marines to testify at the young man’s hearing. The Washington Post ran an editorial supporting an upgraded discharge, noting that Dunbar “was involved in no scandal and had brought no shame on the Marine Corps”, and called the undesirable discharge a “strange and, we think, pointless way of pursuing military ‘justice’.”
In 1975, his search for a gay service member with an impeccable record to initiate a challenge to the military’s ban on homosexuals culminated in protégé Leonard Matlovich, a Technical Sergeant in the United States Air Force with 11 years of unblemished service and a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, purposely outing himself to his commanding officer on March 6, 1975. Matlovich had first read about Kameny’s goal in an interview in the Air Force Times. Talking first by telephone, they eventually met and, along with ACLU attorney David Addlestone, planned the legal challenge. Their relationship was strained after Matlovich’s interview with the New York Times Magazine, as Kameny felt that Matlovich had portrayed the gay community negatively by saying that he would have preferred to be straight.
Discharged in October 1975, Matlovich was ordered reinstated by a federal district court in 1980 in a ruling that, technically, would only have applied to him. Convinced the Air Force would create another excuse to discharge him again, Matlovich accepted a financial settlement instead, and continued his gay activism work until his death from AIDS complications in June 1988. Kameny was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral and spoke at graveside services in Washington, D.C.’s Congressional Cemetery.
On March 26, 1977, Kameny and a dozen other members of the gay and lesbian community, under the leadership of the then-National Gay Task Force, briefed then-Public Liaison Midge Costanza on much-needed changes in federal laws and policies. This was the first time that gay rights were officially discussed at the White House.
Kameny was appointed as the first openly gay member of the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Commission in the 1970s.
Kameny suffered from heart disease in his last years, but maintained a full schedule of public appearances, his last being a speech to an LGBT group in Washington, D.C. on September 30, 2011.
Kameny was found dead in his Washington home on October 11, 2011 (National Coming Out Day). The medical examiner determined the cause of death to be natural causes due to arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
Following Kameny’s death, the giant rainbow flag on the flagpole at the corner of Market Street and Castro Street in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco was flown at half-mast for 24 hours beginning on the afternoon of October 12, 2011 at the request of the creator of the rainbow flag, Gilbert Baker.